Every now and then, something happens and an idea becomes the zeitgeist of the population, at least for the moment. That happened to naturism the 1930s, so why could it not happen again?
The depression hit Britain in late 1929 and it saw a ‘shanty town’ of unemployed men and a few women develop on land near Hendon with the permission of a sympathetic landowner. The site bordered the Brent Reservoir (commonly called Welsh Harp after a nearby pub) and bathing in the lake was also permitted. In the summer of 1930 some of the men took to sunbathing naked, having chalked up notices on trees warning the public not to intrude if they were offended by nudity.
Nothing this bold could be kept secret forever and by June roughly 40 men and women would sunbath naked – or topless – on the banks of the Welsh Harp Reservoir at a weekend. At first newspaper articles about the “goings on” in Hendon were neutral, leading to the chalked notices being ignored by curious members of the public. Of course, not wishing to miss any opportunity the newspapers then began to describe some of the strange antics of these people, desperate to see someone naked. According to one local newspaper, Hendon Times and Guardian, quoted in Cec Cinder’s The Nudist Idea, one “well-dressed and educated woman, brought two girls, aged about 12, and sat amongst the men dressing and undressing near Sun-Ray Villa and watched the sunbathers.” For a few brief months, nude sunbathing was a topic of gossip for many people – the Twitter of its day – and who knows how many of them would have joined the nudists after their curiosity had been satisfied. However, by then the articles had taken a definite anti-nudist line and the public’s mood swung, all too quickly, away from naturism culminating in a near riot.
Although an article in The Times dated 5th August 1932 showed that naturists were still using the banks of the Brent Reservoir by this time they were being ejected from the site by “representatives of Hendon, Willesden and Kingsbury Rural District Councils, accompanied by policemen.”
After what became known as the “Welsh Harp Incident”, novelist Evelyn Waugh wrote: ‘The people who made such a fuss at the Welsh Harp simply detest the spectacle of bodies of any kind, beautiful or ugly. But do they cherish their over-delicate sensibility and avoid places where they are liable to be shocked? No. These astonishing people assemble in a large crowd at the one place where they know they will see the very thing which displeases them.’
Not exactly 140 characters, 301 to be precise, but if such a positive statement in favour of the naturists from someone as famous as Waugh could have been tweeted then who knows what would have happened.
The events of Welsh Harp were newspaper led, like those early in January, when The Malta Times had a brief filler article about parliamentarian Marlene Farrugia needing to be rescued by police from Gnejna Bay. The rocky ledge that the MP found sanctuary on is well-known as an unofficial haunt for the island’s naturists, and a campaign group used it for a call for better access to the such sites. Naturism may not be the island’s zeitgeist just yet, but comments attached to the article suggested that it isn’t a subject to be avoided in an otherwise deeply conservative society.
There is no suggestion that Farrugia is a topless sunbather or naturist herself but if Malta did have a famous (even if only in island terms) naturist then naturism as an idea would have arrived, and maybe the island’s society would benefit in far more ways than just tourism if it was taken to its heart.
So it is unfortunate that when Captain America starlet, Hayley Atwell, tweeted that she “loved standing naked on a British beach in winter” not everyone understand that she was being ironic and Atwell had to explain that she was no nudist. But not before 66 of her followers on Twitter gave the comment a metaphorical ‘thumbs up’ and 30 of them re-tweeted it.
Briefly then, the Swalecliffe’s unofficial naturist beach became a point of interest in the twitter-sphere, but imagine what could have happened if Atwell actually meant it? It would almost certainly gone viral and suddenly everyone would have been talking about a small part of Kent being the centre of the naturist universe. Naturism will suddenly be cool.
Perhaps trending on Twitter or Facebook is not the true zeitgeist of a society that we seek but maybe it’s the best we can expect in the 21st century. Cool naturism is only a tweet or a post away.